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Conversation with Morton Feldman

by Kevin Volans

Feldmans's Second String Quartet was given its European premiere by the Kronos Quartet on the evening of 25th July 1984 at the 1984 Darmstadt Summer Course of Contemporary Music. The next morning Feldman gave his 1984 "Darmstadt Lecture," the text of which is reproduced in Walter Zimmermann's collection of Feldman's "Essays" (1985). After the lecture, Feldman had lunch with Kevin Volans who recorded the conversation reproduced below. This conversation was first published in Volans's collection of conversations with composers published under the title "Summer Gardeners" (Durban: Newer Music Edition, 1985) pp122-128.

KV: What I didn't expect at all from the string quartet last night, was how personal the music was. After spending quite a lot of time looking at the score and analysing it, this was somehow overlooked. I don't know if I am overinterpreting it, but it seemed ...

MF: No you weren't. It was pretty sad, wasn't it?

KV: Yes, very. It was upsetting, especially that figure with a glissando over a major second.

MF: It's amazing in the context of the piece what that little thing does, isn't it?

KV: I felt the piece as a whole ... it was like stepping into a Joseph Cornell ...

MF: Yes.

KV: ... or rather a whole set of Cornells.
The piece was very significant for me. But it provides a good illustration of that tragic situation that you talked about, in that there were people there, who felt that the piece said nothing! I mean, it's a nice idea that we're both right, but in fact it's difficult to accept. How CAN they be right? This is a major issue. If we could clear this up, we would have made a lot of progress.

MF: Well I just don't know. Being a fact I accept the fact that there's a tragic situation, that they're right, and I'm right, I always want to know what their alternative for me would be. I mean, where they would feel I said nothing. Is it in the language, is it in the ...

KV: I think it may be in the gesture. They don't recognise the gestures. Perhaps they are too small for them to see. And then perhaps there's a confusion between the gesture and what the gesture means.

MF: I was a little embarrassed about it because I thought there was too much in it. Somewhat. Oh, some parts are ... disgustingly beautiful. I mean, really. I mean really sensational.

KV: That's what I wanted to ask you, are you ever surprised?

MF: Yes I am.

KV: Do you have any idea where all this comes from?

MF: You know, again, history doesn't begin ... Just like God doesn't belong to some vested interest group, history doesn't belong to some vested interest group. It's ... as I said, when my piano teacher played a B flat I nearly fainted. So I think there's a terrific involvement with a kind of TONE. I grew up just at the tail-end of the heyday of the great performers, playing in New York. I used to go to concerts a lot. So I think it's just a question of hearing concerts, being involved with the piano, involved with literature, and hearing it, that ... that I took the kind of distillation and then just brewing it back and kind of reconstructed it or something. In other words, what is the historical symbolism in music? I mean, a viola in a certain place.
And when I wrote that, the only problem was that I knew what was going to happen when I exposed the viola. I knew there was going to be, for me, this kind of nostalgia.

KV: You know, when I went back to South Africa I found this wonderful pianist and piano teacher, Isabella Stengel, who has the most exquisite cantabile. And she made me suddenly aware to what extent "touch" has disappeared as a concept in piano playing in Europe. She voices chords in a way ... that would make you faint, too. And in many ways I feel you represent that tradition of touch. In composition. And that's a concept that has all but disappeared in composition in Europe, too. We, (and I think I speak for many) have been trained as musical architects, or structuralists or conceptualists, so it's not surprising that when you talk about registration and instrumentation, that some people don't think you're talking about composition.

MF: It's as if you have any involvement or feeling for music, you're not a composer. And I said it, in a sense.
It would be as if you were going to a theological seminar, and they were talking about all the ways they could reach God, and they don't talk about God or their feeling for God. It would be as if they were talking about all the ways one could reach God, all the techniques, all the arguments, so to speak, but God himself, they don't know what it is.


But the way logic would be used by people, to make their thought richtig [right]. Schopenhauer, to show the superiority of Christianity comes out with this remark, and it's brilliant: to show that Christians are superior to Jews, the justification is, is that for the first time in history there was a God that died. Humanised. And that the Jews still believed like primitive people in an unseen God, you see. And the logic is fantastic. The logic is fantastic.
But it's not true! To show that's uniqueness, that it's the uniqueness element is what makes it better. Kids have it. A piano is too old-fashioned, so they blow into some tube.
Take for example ... I was talking to Metzger ...
It's the problem of logic. The early Hebrews felt that God created the language, the letters, so they felt that there was something ... holy. They took literally the first sentence in the Bible: In the beginning, God created the word. So they thought that the spelling of the word was holy - that it came from God. They felt as if life already began with a written language, so the Kabala and the Talmudist would do all kinds of things, looking for some secret in the alphabet. Looking for some kind of formula to give them the secret of life. Also from the beginning there was a social commitment.
So what is my social commitment? That some entrepreneur wants to sell tickets to a concert, or the church commissions a piece as a production? Is that a social commitment? In other words, is it a social commitment ... is that the social life made in art? Either to dance around before they go to war, or use music for messages through the jungle. So all those, like the taboo ... I always loved the Tahiti taboo, because ... it's very much like in society, there's a taboo one day, next day, there's no taboo. And unless you live in this culture, you don't know that taboo, it's like you can park there on Friday, but you can't park there on Monday [laughs]. Taboo changes all the time! Some taboos don't change! But unless you're really in it ...
Like in some cities in America, you can make a left on a red light. Other cities, you would get a ticket. It's against the law to make a left on a red light. And then there's a rule that says ignorance is no excuse. You can't say: "Oh I come from Chicago and we can make a left turn." They would say: "This is not Chicago." There's no sign saying you can't make a left on a red light.
And that's what happens to culture: in Germany, America, the Soviet Union, Israel, the Arabs - we're living as primitive men with taboo. High tech taboos. You know, Freud, very great man, he said something fantastic, he said, we're gods, with artificial limbs. Beautiful.
We're very primitive. Nationalism is primitive, religions are primitive. Even Christ is primitive. At the time, it was fine. Like John Cage - now we don't have to love everybody. [Laughs] It was a primitive concept! [Laughs]
He's conceptual. Cage is conceptual! We're very, very different. You see but he doesn't know he's conceptual, he thinks he's ... only American words would explain it, he thinks he's neat, tidy, you see? In other words ... Cage feels that ... if this is over here [moves glass to the edge of the table] he'll feel it's going to fall, and he like takes it puts it over here. And all his music, the way he writes, everything is like ... it's going to fall [laughs]. In that sense ... he does it for that sense - for that orderliness, that neatness - to organise everything. But he doesn't feel it's conceptual. It's the way his house looks. Tidy.
You know what he showed me? He showed me how to use a rapidograph. He'd say: "Tap it like this, don't tap it with the point, because the point's going to go," he said, "And the point's going to break!" Thirty years later, I'm going like this - I want the ink right away, and it falls and like a knife it sticks, it sticks in the floor. And I started to laugh, I said: "Thirty years ago, John told me not to do that!" [Laughs]

KV: Do you think there's a way out of this situation? I mean this new music situation.

MF: No!
I think it's becoming a very interesting social, musical problem. Not the audience. I think the problem is growing with, not the audience, but with the neue generation of composers and people like that. They're too competitive, too aggressive, they're not realistic, they have no skills, techniques, they don't know too much, and the element of fantasy about what they do, has taken over more and more. And it doesn't make any difference if it's the left or the right, it doesn't make any difference if it's the Webern heritage or the Cage, it's the same kind of person essentially.

KV: What piece are you writing next?

MF: I'm writing a piece, for a year in advance, for a tour. Did you hear my piece CRIPPLED SYMMETRY? Okay. So it's the same piece, but the score is almost the same, but not the same. I don't use the whole piece as ... very strict individual parts, which were calculated all the time on just a cheap calculator. In other words, after I finished two or three pages, I then would want to see how many eighth-notes ... and I would see that the flute is maybe a hundred and fifty eighth-notes behind, you see. And that the percussion is way ahead, because percussion moves quicker in time. You see what I like is to have them almost together, but for me acoustically they're all moving ... like this is time, and the instruments are moving almost at a same rate, but not exactly. A viola doesn't move at the same as a violin. You could make it move! [Laughs] But it doesn't move this way, it doesn't speak, this way. It speaks, until the E string. The E string killed it off. So I'm very into these different ... these times where it's almost the same time, but in my ear it's not the same time.
I'm very interested in a kind of pan-rhythmic, a kind of pan-rhythmic situation. Almost the same ... I mean, rhythm is notation, many times, outside of the fact what you want to do with it. So what I'm doing now is having small modules, very simple formations, very simple. Say one system, there are nine measures. And I'm writing, it's flute, percussion and piano. And I look at it and I give it ... the first five measures are in one-two, and then there are four measures of three-eight. Some of them begin, maybe, four measures, three-eight, another one begins five-eight. Sometimes I make a more complicated pattern, but very simple [modules] and out of it I get very complicated rhythms. And the reasons I'm doing it, I don't want to make a performers situation [where] they're looking to make a cue. I don't want rhythm to become an aspect of syncopation.
There were very small modules in the quartet, though it had this almost canonic-like repetition in different times, overlapping. But just for four measures, because four instruments, four measures - they come out the same in time. Many times I would like it, a very extreme. I would use four measures, for example. Okay. Seven-two, four double-dotted; seven-four, four double-dotted; seven-eight, four double-dotted; and seven-sixteen.

Musical Example

So like tic tac toe [noughts and crosses]. So I make a design. And all kinds of formulations. [Indicates how he would distribute the measures between the four instruments of the string quartet]. For example, here here. Usually I start here [indicates cello] so that by the time you get to the first violin, it's orchestrated in a way so that you had an accumulation of the different time worlds going together. Like a canon of time worlds. And you hear it. It's not the same note, but you hear the time of the cello going into the viola ... passing the time ... and then this is the quick one, going that way. I love that. But not for long periods of time. My first quartet ends that way. I like that. And what happens then I get very complicated subdivisions, of rhythmic formations, and as I look at it I know the possibilities. I hear already the possibilities. And that's what gives me the proportions, for example. I would say, maybe seven-sixteen is too fast. It would make for syncopation. And then I kind of make quick ... I do one measure and I see what the formulation is, and you don't even hear it. It's almost like an echo, someplace else.
An imitation of PACING. An imitation of breathing of another voice. That's another translation I do: rhythm - pacing - duration - breathing. So many of the rhythms you heard were like breathing ... Not bad, huh?

KV: The method or the lunch?

MF: Not a method ... my lunch. There it is: you have a method for lunch, and the imitators have it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, before they go to bed ...

KV: What instruments are you writing for?

MF: Flute, piano, celeste, and percussion. Essentially vibraphone and glock. I don't like the vibraphone too much when I hear it, but I like it when I'm writing it, and especially without the motor. And what I'm doing now is chordal and just putting it in places and then I play it the same time as the celeste ... as the glock, together. But I don't mind it in this piece - the vibe, I don't mind it.

KV: Have you ever had an inclination to work with older instruments, like the viola da gamba?

MF: No. No. It doesn't have the beating. It doesn't have the spectra, (what do you call it?). It's too archaic. I had a girlfriend who played the viola da gamba. I know the viola da gamba very well. It's very beautiful. But I don't think it's beautiful for contemporary music.
What do you think of my idea, that pitch sounds better with very conventional instruments? That the pitches we use are not for ad hoc instrumentation.

KV: I don't know, I have two feelings about that.

MF: I know.

KV: Certainly intervals sound very different on different instruments. They tend to be clearer on early instruments. I wrote a piece recently, which I was trying out on a clavichord, and really enjoying the intervals - they had a very special quality, but when I came to play it on a Steinway it sounded terrible.

MF: You know there's a very interesting paper I once read about somebody ... played on the original pianos of great composers. How Schumann harmony sounded on that instrument. The clarity of the harmony was extraordinary. Under a big light. Chopin's piano sounded just like Chopin - that he never really played loud. The piano cannot play loud. That he made a mezzoforte sound big. And because of the level of the piano, that what he wrote on that piano was the best that sounded on that piano.
Somebody once came to my house, and wanted a criticism of their playing some years ago, and for some reason played the SONATINE by Ravel, and she stopped and she said: "On your piano, it sounds like your music." Very, very interesting - the importance of one's instrument.
Bunita Marcus, I went away, she used my piano. I came back, I said: "Did you work?" She said: "What I did, I did in half of the time, because I worked on your piano."
I love the piano to work, because the balance on it ... marvellous instrument.


We have come back to Darmstadt, but without the kinder - just us - and talk. No students. Because it's nice to meet and talk. And we never do it.

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